Just one WNBA game yesterday and it was another early one, as thousands of kids packed into Chicago’s Allstate Arena for the visit of the New York Liberty. The Sky lineup was the one we’ve come to expect, but Bill Laimbeer made some changes for the Liberty. Leilani Mitchell replaced Kamiko Williams at point guard, which was hardly a surprise considering Mitchell had been progressively swallowing more of the minutes at that spot anyway. But there was also a change at center, where recent signing Avery Warley came into the lineup ahead of Kara Braxton. Given that Braxton was in uniform, and started the second half after playing zero minutes in the first – and considering Braxton’s distinctly chequered history – it felt like it might’ve been an unofficial suspension. But New York did suffer another injury during the first half, and an article today claimed Braxton’s fighting back pain, so maybe they were hoping to rest her and then felt they had no choice but to use her later on.
Warley did a solid job of using her physicality to make life uncomfortable for Sylvia Fowles in the opening minutes – in fact, Warley managed to score on Fowles before the Chicago center could return the favour – while Katie Smith was tasked with handling Elena Delle Done. The Sky as a whole got off to a truly atrocious start. It was like the early tip-off had caught them by surprise, and their minds were still tucked up in bed. After some early intent to find Fowles in the paint, they were doing little offensively besides firing bricks from outside, but the real disasters came on the defensive end. They were dreadful in transition, either allowing the Liberty to simply beat them down the floor for layups, or failing to recognise when New York pushing the ball had resulted in mismatches. Twice, point guard Courtney Vandersloot was left covering posts on the low block, because she was the only one back in time to pick up defensively. And despite her obvious disadvantage, none of her teammates recognised the problem and dropped down to help her with a double-team. It was pathetic, and Sky coach Pokey Chatman had already called two timeouts before the game was seven minutes old. Trailing by 13 points late in the first quarter, she went to five bench players looking to wake her team up. The starters were back in before the end of the first, but Chicago finished the period down 30-15.
The Sky were already starting to make some inroads into New York’s lead when another scary moment occurred for the Liberty, early in the second quarter. Plenette Pierson tried to turn to make a move in the paint, and her right leg – already featuring a big brace on the knee – just went out from under her. She stayed down for a while before being helped to the bench, and never returned to the game. After already losing Essence Carson and Cheryl Ford due to knee problems this season – an ACL tear for Carson, chronic issues for Ford – it was the last thing New York wanted to see. Losing essentially the only power forward on their roster wasn’t going to help their chances in this specific game, either.
A little regression to the mean for New York’s offense, combined with Pierson’s injury and Chicago’s defense deciding to join the party, led to the Liberty lead disintegrating pretty quickly in the second quarter. Both these teams have had issues with turnovers – Chicago for several years, New York more specifically this season – but the Sky were keeping hold of the ball on this occasion. The Liberty, however, started coughing the ball up cheaply, making sloppy errors and virtually handing the ball back to Chicago. Even when they weren’t technically committing turnovers, a remarkable number of Liberty passes seemed to be tipped or batted rather than reaching their originally intended destination. They were telegraphing their passes, making it far too easy for the Sky to anticipate the next move.
Delle Donne’s offense took off when Smith went to the bench, leaving the likes of Toni Young and Alex Montgomery trying to guard her. The jump shots rained down from the Sky’s hyper-talented rookie and they were all going in, while backup wing Shay Murphy also made her first positive contribution of the season. Murphy had a solid year last season as one of Chicago’s most useful backups, but has barely seen the floor this year while Chatman favoured Allie Quigley instead. But while Quigley’s a shooter, and that’s basically it, Murphy can impact the game with her quickness at both ends of the floor – and hit open shots as well, if you offer them to her. The Sky went ‘small’ for much of the second period, with Murphy in for Swin Cash alongside the remaining four starters. They could get away with that because without Pierson, New York offered so little threat from the forward spots. Neither Delle Donne or Murphy was going to be exploited on the defensive end or the glass, and the increased Sky quickness helped them back into the game. The Liberty lead that reached 17 was gone by halftime, when the Sky went in up 44-42.
New York kept the game tight in the third quarter, through a combination of Smith’s continued efforts defending Delle Donne, and Leilani Mitchell making a few shots. The Liberty definitely seemed to have marked out Vandersloot as the weak link in Chicago’s defense, because Mitchell was constantly looking to attack her, and Pondexter was doing the same when occasional Sky switches afforded her the opportunity.
The crucial run came early in the fourth, with Chicago scoring the first eight points of the period to take a 70-61 lead. Again Murphy was a key contributor, while three more Liberty possessions ended in turnovers after bad passes into lanes that didn’t exist. Delle Donne had a block, a steal and an assist in that sequence, showing how she can affect a game even without scoring. She’s a willing passer when teammates move and are in the right position to receive, even if you sometimes see hints of the player who had to carry her college team on her back every night. Defensively she’s not great (yet), but she is long and coordinated. When you’re 6’5” and can get in the way, you’ll change shots and come up with a few blocks almost by accident.
It wasn’t a coincidence that Pondexter and Mitchell were grabbing a quick breather when the Sky pulled out that lead – the Liberty desperately lack direction with those two off the floor – but a lot of New York’s problems this season can also be tracked back to Pondexter. It feels like she’s jacking up far too many long jumpers, curling off screens and just firing away, and the numbers back that up. She’s always taken plenty of long two-point shots – the least efficient shot in basketball – even when she was a legitimate MVP candidate back in 2010. That’s acceptable when you can hit them at a half-decent rate. But so far this season she’s taken the barrage of long-twos to another level. Before this game against Chicago, she was 11-46 from 16-to-21 feet (in seven games). That puts her on pace to take 223 shots from that distance over the entire regular season. She took 152, 125 and 124 shots from the near-equivalent range over the last three seasons respectively (it’s not an exact parallel because the three-point line’s moved out this year, so it was 16-to-20 feet in the past). Her attempts near the rim are actually pretty similar to past years, but some of her mid-range twos have moved back, and some of her three-point attempts have stepped inside the arc. It’s not working. She’s shooting a poor percentage, and her turnovers are through the roof as well. It’s hard to tell how much of it is Cappie settling for the wrong kind of shots, and how much is Laimbeer’s offense setting her up to take too many in the wrong areas. It’s probably a little of both. But it’s something that needs fixing if the Liberty are going to win a decent number of games this year.
Braxton was an absolute horror show for most of the second half. It was very much Bad Kara, with lazy help defense and dreadful turnovers being a typical part of the package. But two things we’d seen far too little of – Pondexter hitting a three, and Braxton running the floor hard for a layup – gave New York a chance late in the game. It cut their deficit to five with under three minutes remaining, and forced a Chatman timeout. Out of that break, Delle Donne converted a tough jumper under pressure from Smith, before forcing another Pondexter miss with a solid challenge. Then Delle Donne cut past Braxton for an easy layup while drawing a foul, and the game was over. Chicago made it look even more emphatic with some late buckets, completing an 87-74 victory.
New York are exhibiting too many of the same problems over and over again. Turnovers from poor and obvious passing in a relatively static offense, and sets that repeatedly finish in forced Pondexter jumpers. If it wasn’t for the crazy-hot start and the unlikely 6-9 shooting from beyond the arc, this game would’ve been over much sooner. The defense is mostly pretty solid, despite the injury problems they’ve had, but there’s still lots, and lots, of work to be done on scoring points. And if Pierson’s out for a prolonged period, it’s going to become significantly more difficult.
The win moved Chicago to 6-3, which is pretty good for a team that aren’t exactly a well-oiled machine themselves just yet. The start was ridiculously poor, but after that things went reasonably well. Their ‘Big Three’ led the way, with Delle Donne finishing 10-17 for 26 points, 7 boards, 6 assists and 3 blocks, despite having to fend off Smith’s physical defense for most of the afternoon. Fowles wasn’t really the focus of the offense much beyond the opening minutes of the game, but went to work on the glass and came up with 19 points and 14 boards. Epiphanny Prince was relatively quiet, but did a solid job defensively on Pondexter, and earned her way to the free throw line enough to make an impact. Plus the rediscovery of Murphy could be important for their season, because the Sky bench often looks pretty horrible. One way or another, this team is finding a way to win games, and that debut playoff appearance is becoming increasingly likely.
Thursday June 27th (today):
Phoenix @ Washington, 7pm ET (pick against the spread and details in yesterday’s column)
Friday June 28th (tomorrow):
Tulsa @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Washington @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET
Los Angeles @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
New York @ Seattle, 10pm ET